Arts & Culture

Kittredge Gallery’s new show offers meditation on the art of Makoto Fujimura

Art has inspired meditation for millennia now, but the latest example in Tacoma is at the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery, where the hushed space is filled with recent paintings and sketches by Japanese painter Makoto Fujimura, hanging like mystical scrolls in a temple. And while a little more background information might have helped illuminate “Process Drawings,” it’s still a highly meditative experience — exactly what Fujimura, internationally recognized for his work bridging the arts and spirituality, would want.

Two things most characterize Fujimura’s work, both in his refined gold-leaf paintings and in the swift, stream-of-consciousness works now up at Kittredge: an embrace of materials and a constant reaching out to the metaphysical thought behind each work. Honored with the 2014 Religion and the Arts award by the American Academy of Religion, and collected by museums around the world, Fujimura’s also a writer, speaker and thinker about deep issues of faith, with his art rooted in a mystical Christianity. Yet he’s also about the process, using traditional Nihonga materials (handmade paper, mineral pigments, animal-skin glue, sumi ink) and frequently collaborating with musicians and writers.

In Kittredge, curator Margaret Bullock has thoughtfully presented his sketches on creamy Kumohada paper — intense in their spattery attack of paint and minimalist form — with the paintings on dark-chocolate Fujimura paper, scrolls so long they curl up just inches from the floor, shimmering with gilt and stroked with iridescent constellations of blue, gold and silver pigment dissolving in a brown ether. The gentle repetition is reminiscent of church windows.

The Fujimura paintings (“Brecht Forum,” “Susie Ibarra”) were created in live performance with percussionist Susie Ibarra, one of the first such at New York’s Carnegie Hall. But they have a slow intensity that contrasts with the swiftness of the Kumohada works, where thick paper is more shallow and immediate, and where the spread of sandy pigment (applied with water and allowed to drift vertically) is more like graffiti than illumination.

In between are the “Fragments” (“Shinseido,” “St. Paul’s Chapel, Ground Zero, NYC”). Never more than a foot wide, the dark brown paper is embedded with esoteric gold paint markings in neat, spaced rows, like an ancient runic artifact. As the director of the Tokyo art museum points out in “Golden Sea,” the documentary about Fujimura’s life, this artist paints with “a depth and kindness that is greater than any technique.”

The one thing that’s missing in this experience is information. While the university screened “Golden Sea” last week, there’s little explanation in the gallery of any of Fujimura’s thought or process: how he fell in love with traditional Japanese paints and papers in a small shop in Tokyo; how he layers paint, metal leaf and glue on the large paper; how his concept of beauty (the aroma of the sea, a forest) shapes his thought on art. Skimming through the exquisite, cloth-bound “Golden Sea’ monograph on the bench helps, but this is one meditation that could be deepened by some explanatory texts, a walk-around guide-sheet comparing paintings that the sketches prepare for, even a looping screening of “Golden Sea” in one corner behind a curtain, or a link to the six-minute trailer.

Abstract meditation is great — but informed meditation can be even more powerful.